It is well known that under certain conditions, newly hatched goslings and ducklings will follow and become socially bonded to the first moving object they encounter. Konrad Lorenz, in his classic studies of this phenomenon, noted that the bond seemed to be formed immediately, that it seemed to be irreversible and that it seemed to only develop during a brief "critical period" in the first day or so after hatching. Lorenz employed the term "Imprinting" to describe the process by which the social bond was formed. In doing so he implied that during a gosling or duckling's first encounter with a moving object the image of the object is somehow stamped irreversibly on the nervous system and for many years this was the accepted conception of the process.
In the course of more recent research (in my own as well as in other laboratories) it has come to be realized that the traditional view of imprinting is incorrect. The newer research makes it clear that imprinting is neither rapid nor irreversible; as was claimed by Lorenz and his followers. Nor for that matter is imprinting a specialized phenomenon limited to a brief critical period early in a young bird's life, as was also claimed by the early investigators. Instead the latest findings lead to the unexpected conclusion that imprinting occurs in many species including man and that it entails much more plastic and forgiving mechanisms than were claimed by Lorenz. Perhaps more importantly, that work also provides compelling evidence that the social bond that develops through imprinting entails an addictive process that is mediated by the release of endorphins (the brain's own opiates). This surprising insight helps us to better understand a number of otherwise puzzling issues with respect to how we deal with each other and with our children.
We now understand that imprinting works as follows: To be an appropriate target for social bonding an object (it could, of course, be a person or an animal) has to provide stimulation that is pleasurable and in this sense, comforting. This will happen when some aspect of the object (for example, its shape or its texture or its motion) has the capacity to innately stimulate the production of endorphins (the brain's own form of morphine).
When a young duckling or gosling or human baby is exposed to such an object it is immediately comforted and if the exposure is extensive, the initially neutral features of the object gradually acquire the capacity to themselves stimulate the production of endorphins. This happens through an as yet to be thoroughly understood learning process.
Once this learning has occurred, the object will have been rendered familiar. As a result it will continue to be comforting when development has proceeded to the point when any unfamiliar, but otherwise appropriate, object will elicit a competing fear reaction.
When viewed in this fashion it becomes clear that the so called critical period is merely the period in development prior to the onset of fear of novelty (at about day three) in ducklings and goslings, and fear of strangers (at about 8 months) in our own babies. It is also clear that for subjects that are beyond the critical period, an appropriate but unfamiliar object must eventually become familiar provided that the subject has sufficient exposure to it. Once this happens the object will no longer elicit a competing fear response and since the object already has the capacity to stimulate the production of endorphins it will now serve as a potential target for social bonding.
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First placed online October 2nd, 1996.
Last modified Fall, 2003.
Webwiz: Ace Hoffman
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